Earlier this year, I noted that due to monocropping, climate change, and political factors, we are facing a chocolate shortage. The much-beloved dessert (and sometimes savory, depending on the context) item is facing the chopping block, leading to stockpiling and strategising on the part of big chocolate manufacturers concerned about their markets. Similar issues are being seen with commodity crops like coffee, which we may lose over the course of the coming decade, forcing people to find new ways to meet the needs they previously addressed with said commodities; switching to tea, for example (though climate change may well affect tea plantations, too, since tea only grows well in a very narrow range, and if the climate shifts, that range could become inhospitable).
The media typically seize upon threatened shortages as an opportunity for dire and tragic predictions. The world will be over without chocolate; chocolate will be gone within just a few years; you should stock up now because soon there won’t be any; what will life in a post-chocolate era look like? I find the fixation with this fascinating both because such shortages have actually been predicted and discussed well in advance, and because there’s a much larger issue going on here.
Commodities are not nearly so important as shortages of basic staple foods, a growing issue around the world. In fact, one reason communities have trouble accessing staple foods is because the commodity market has consumed their farmland; it is more cost-effective to grow chocolate or coffee or quinoa or some other trendy ingredient to be sold to the West than it is to grow basic crops that will save lives and keep communities few. The staples of existence can’t be marketed and sold to high-margin buyers, leaving farmers with limited choices.
Especially when their situation is compounded by political instability, cost of living issues, difficulty accessing labour, and other legacies of colonialism. Farmers may also find themselves locked into unfair deals through corporations like Monsanto, through local agricultural firms, and more; perhaps Monsanto pressures them into buying their seeds and agricultural chemicals, for example, creating a feedback loop where they are stuck with the bioengineering firm and can’t get out, and thus must increase yields and select crops carefully to avoid losing their land and keep their families fed. Likewise, the price for staples may be too low for sustainability, forcing farmers to turn to more profitable means of production.
When the issue of global hunger is brought up, it’s often approached from the position that the Global South needs to be fed by the West, that regions like Africa (Africa, that massive, wild, mysterious continent) are unable to support themselves and rely on the West for sustenance. In fact, the West has forced such regions into a subservient position; it’s not about needing food aid, but about needing the freedom to control domestic agricultural markets, and to create a culture where farming of agricultural commodities is balanced out, allowing farmers in an ideal world to sell coffee alongside manioc root, chocolate with rice.
For the West, panic about food shortages seems to revolve around fancy commodities — surely, the world will end when we don’t have chocolate any longer. These panics erase the fact that the greater problem is the shortage of staples, and the fact that people go to bed hungry across the world precisely because our appetite for commodities is so insatiable. We created the extreme demand for commodities, we created the monocropping and blights that are killing them off, and we, in effect, created the very shortages we are complaining about. Had the West balanced its needs more carefully, it wouldn’t be facing down these surely perilous and life-changing shortages.
It would be sad, on a general aesthetic level, if coffee and chocolate were no longer in our lives. They are an important part of our cultural traditions, and they are rather nice to have around. However, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a tragedy. It would be a significant problem if identical blights struck key staple foods, if communities weren’t able to grow what they need to because of sick plants, changed climate, and other issues. The real tragedy that we are facing down is that these issues are already happening — in communities where farmers are cultivating staple foods, environmental, social, and political factors are making it increasingly hard to survive and to grow necessary crops.
This is what we should be worried about. Not whether we can have mochas in 2025, or whether the Hershey bar will become extinct. Rather, we should be asking why our focus in terms of culinary concern remains staunchly on what we like to eat for fun; yes, food is delicious and lovely and wonderful, and it provides a powerful means of communication and connection, but it is also fundamentally about providing energy so that we can function. If we cannot access food, we die, and food access is a pressing issue. Not because people aren’t growing enough of it, but because the distribution of food production is so skewed.
The West should free commodity-producing regions to grow their own food, with a smaller percentage of commodities on the side, rather than keeping such regions locked into a colonial yoke. While the use of agricultural slavery may not be as overt as it was when Britain and the U.S. profited from sugar cane, for example, there are eerie similarities between the way we demand luxury foods from the Global South today and the way the labour of people who toiled in the fields was used to generate massive profits in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Now, it’s chocolate and coffee, but then again, we’re still putting cane sugar in it.
Photo: Chocolate, Peter Pearson, Flickr